Kick Dirt and Follow the Pruners

'I'm a proponent of lifetime study," says Deborah Lazear, wine educator -- and wine student. "You should keep your mind alive for the rest of your life." She set her own mind's eye on wine because "what goes better with food than wine?" -- and as she says, "It's all about food. I grocery shop and I cook when I'm happy, when I'm sad, when I'm bored, when I'm mad."

Lazear grew up in Nova Scotia, which at the time offered "great lobster, great fish, and not a lot of exposure to foods of different parts of the world." That changed when she attended college in Montreal. "I just saw all these different kinds of food and started experimenting. Of course, my first story is that I didn't realize you're not supposed to put the fondue fork in your mouth, and I burnt my lips."

From Montreal, she moved to England and "had a wonderful opportunity to study with a teacher from the Cordon Bleu School -- go to school with her, enjoy some private lessons with her. And in England, I had great access to France" -- and to French wines.

England led to Vancouver, and Lazear began teaching. "Cooking schools were really big at the time. The food processor had just come out, and people were beginning to experiment. Vancouver was a big cooking area -- going down to the Granville Market allowed you to get really fabulous produce, fish, and meat." Vancouver, too, "had wonderful access to wines." By 1997, when she arrived in San Diego, she was set upon "wine and food pairing. I really felt there was a huge gap in people's understanding -- not that it's a science or a hard and fast rule. It's simply an enhancement; some things just go better with other things."

She began studying with the Society of Wine Educators, eventually becoming a certified specialist of wine. "They were one of the very few groups with an accredited program for wine educators. I was asked to speak at their conference on teaching wine and adult education" -- her other specialty. "They asked me to sit on the committee for revamping the study materials."

Along the way, Lazear pursued her own course of study. "I'm an avid reader. I have subscriptions to two magazines: Wine Spectator for the American view and Decanter" -- published out of England -- "for the European view. I read those faithfully, column to column. I'm quite organized; I take them apart, and I have a filing drawer. They all get filed in appropriate places. And then tasting. When I moved here to San Diego, I was so excited, because the tasting opportunities are phenomenal." She runs the gamut from San Diego Wine Company to Meritage to the WineSellar, "where I practice my blind tasting. It's very humbling."

Besides books and tasting, "I decided that winemaking really is about farming. I went off to Temecula on one of those Temecula Valley Vintners Association tours, and I met this lady who owns a vineyard -- Selma Lesser. She was an 83-year-old pixie. She let me come up and kick dirt and follow the pruners and watch the harvesting. I spent a lot of time up there. And then I started hooking up with Orfila Vineyards." Winemaker/GM Leon Santoro "has been very open to having me come up and tromp around and see what he's doing. People are very generous with their time, their knowledge, and their wine tasting."

Her career as a wine educator began in 2003 with her support of public radio. "My husband was reading KPBS's On Air magazine, and he saw an ad for this wine festival at Orfila. It was an outdoor event, and there was going to be lots of tasting and food pairing. He said, 'Why don't you call up and volunteer?' I said, 'Why not?'" She called and gave her qualifications. When KPBS called back, they asked for her help with "a big food and wine event -- very upscale, very small. One hundred people max, $500 a person -- a major fundraiser. There would be six chefs from around the city who would volunteer their time, and my job was to pair the wines and to secure the wines, get the wineries to donate. The first one was held at the Golf Club at Santaluz; it was called 'One Enchanted Evening,' and it really was. The gowns were beautiful, and the food was wonderful, and the wines were over the top."

Lazear continued her education and garnered a little publicity in the process. "A couple of years ago, Wine Spectator decided to have this online school. Their first course was on California Cabernet. I went online and completed the course, and they wrote to me and said, 'Can we use your name to publicize this?' There was my name in the Wine Spectator. I nearly died!" The early bird gets the buzz.

It got better when she caught the attention of Dorothy J. Gaiter and John Brecher, authors of the "Tastings" column in The Wall Street Journal. "Every year they have an event called 'Open That Bottle Night.' My husband and I said, 'Let's put together a dinner, invite some friends, and ask each friend to bring a bottle of wine -- just like they suggested in the column.' We had our first event, and some wines were a success, and some were...an educational opportunity. The dinner was a lot of fun, and I dutifully sent in my little story to the Journal. The next year, we did a more elaborate affair. It was after September 11, and I wanted to do a very American meal, based on what people coming over [from Europe] would first have had. I made oyster stew, and rabbit, and nests of wild rice and Parmesan with Cognac chicken livers, and wild blueberry tart. And I brought the wines from Virginia -- I was there on business. I had a big emphasis on the wine and food pairing, and I sent that story in as well." Shortly afterwards, "The phone rang, and it was Dorothy. She said, 'I've got to know how you made those nests.' We had this long conversation, and she printed my menu in the column; they do four or five menus each time. We did the dinner again the following year -- another elaborate menu -- and they printed it again." When Gaiter and Brecher wrote their book Wine for Every Day and Every Occasion, they included Lazear's colonial menu. "That's probably one of my highlights."

One thing leads to another. "KPBS is supported by SDSU. I got a call: 'San Diego State is going to have a program called "The Business of Wine." Would you like to go and talk to them about being in some of their classes?' The phone did not hang up before I was there."

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